Documentary Traces How a Band of Detroit Misfits Built ‘Creem’ Magazine

The film covers the rock publication’s edgy legacy, but it also focuses on the writers and editors who gave the magazine its vehement voice
creem magazine
Creem co-founder Barry Kramer (left), editor Dave Marsh, and critic Lester Bangs on the steps of the magazine’s Cass Avenue headquarters. // Photographs courtesy of Shore Fire Media

A new documentary on the seminal Detroit rock magazine Creem has its roots in an early ’80s visit to a used bookstore outside Washington, D.C. Director Scott Crawford was 12 years old when he started listening to punk, especially the influential hardcore music coming out of the nation’s capital, mere miles away from his home in Silver Spring, Maryland.

“Obviously, in the early ’80s, mid-’80s, there was no internet, so the only way to find out information was to read fanzines,” Crawford says. “The ones that I really liked were called Flipside and Maximum Rock ’n’ Roll. … In reading them, there were numerous references to Lester Bangs and to Creem and proto-punk and Iggy [Pop] and the MC5. So, my father and I, one weekend, went to a used bookstore, and in the back of the store, there was a box of old magazines, music magazines, that no one bought, and I said, ‘Oh, my god, this is Creem.’”

When you cracked open an issue of Creem in the 1970s, you would practically get a contact high. The prose was fueled by weed and speed as well as the most powerful natural drugs: attitude and passion.

“Those guys would fight about whether the latest Black Sabbath album was any good. And when I say fight, they would come to blows,” Crawford says. “To them, it was worth literally physically fighting over — that’s how important music was to them.”

Zines and Creem inspired Crawford to start his own magazine at age 12. He went on to produce several more professional publications over the years, including Harp and Blurt, both of which featured writers from Creem.

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This ain’t pop: Iggy Pop on a typically iconoclastic cover of Creem from 1974.

While Creem lasted until 1989, what Crawford discovered in that used bookstore were issues from the 1970s, the height of the magazine’s relevance and irreverence, and that era is the primary focus of his documentary, Creem: America’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll Magazine. Billing itself as such as a rebuke to Rolling Stone, which had also covered politics alongside its mainstream-friendly music coverage, Creem magazine was an extension of the then-new — and often gonzo — journalism of Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, Truman Capote, and others.

The idea for Creem arose in March 1969 when Tony Reay, an employee of Barry Kramer’s Mixed Media head shop and bookstore, published the first issue out of his Gladstone Street apartment. (The mag was named Creem because Cream was Reay’s favorite band — and it was the mag’s first of many snide shots at Rolling Stone.)

When the first issue sold out, Kramer offered to back the magazine financially, and they started producing it in the building that housed his Full Circle record shop at 4860 Cass Ave. Reay left a short time later because he wanted to keep Creem focused on blues-based acts. Enter Dave Marsh, a salty 19-year-old Wayne State University student who was the perfect foil for the combative Kramer. Marsh’s pugnacious personality came to define the magazine for the next decade, even after he left for Rolling Stone in 1975.

As Creem took off, the mag moved into Kramer’s building at 3729 Cass Ave. and became a gathering spot and crash pad for bands and countercultural types. The star writer was Lester Bangs, a man who wielded insults and praise like a machete, his passion for rock ’n’ roll as fervent as his desire to offend.

The documentary covers the publication’s edgy legacy, but it also focuses on the writers and editors — all seemingly blessed with enormous personalities — who gave the magazine its vehement voice. Creem’s immature humor was aimed at teenage dudes, and it may have seemed like it was run by a misogynistic boys’ club. For instance, a review of The Runaways’ second album, Queens of Noise, is highlighted in the documentary, and the write-up is so cruel and sexist that it’s amazing the writer even conjured the vile thoughts in his brain, let alone printed them in a magazine. (In the film, Crawford gives The Runaways’ lead singer, Joan Jett, the last word on the brutal review.)

But many of the mag’s surliest jokes were written by Creem’s female staffers, such as Jaan Uhelszki, one of the film’s most prominent talking heads. “It was the ’70s, so sue me,” she says in the film.

“I really wanted to explore the women’s roles [at Creem] because I can’t think of another magazine at that point that had as many women writers involved,” Crawford says. “And it was an interesting juxtaposition with this politically incorrect magazine … basically written for … young boys, teen men … but with a ton of women writers. … How do those two things reconcile themselves?”

Uhelszki also co-wrote and co-produced the documentary with Crawford and J.J. Kramer, Barry Kramer’s son, who lost his troubled father in 1981 when he was just 4.

“To do the story justice and to do it honestly, I asked JJ Kramer very early on what’s off-limits. And he said, ‘Nothing. Nothing’s off-limits.’ And I said, ‘OK, because this really needs to be a warts-and-all kind of film.’ And he was completely on board,” Crawford says. “There are things in there that … were uncomfortable … and to his credit and to his mother’s credit, they allowed it.”

JJ’s mom and Kramer’s widow, Connie, is another important voice in the film because she was there for all of the madness and also had her own drug demons to beat. Other famous folks giving testimonials to Creem’s influence include REM’s Michael Stipe, Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, Kiss’ Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, film director Cameron Crowe, and MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer, who also provided music for the film’s soundtrack.

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A wild ride: The Ramones show off a beat-up Pinto for Creem’s recurring Stars Cars feature.

Celebrities with local ties also appear in the documentary, including Chelsea’s Jeff Daniels and Bloomfield Hills native and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith, who tells a funny tale accompanied by animated visuals of running into Alice Cooper after riding his bike to Creem’s offices in Birmingham — the magazine’s final Michigan home after a two-year communal experiment in Walled Lake, where the whole staff lived together on a farm in the middle of nowhere.

But former editor Marsh, with his acerbic, deadpan wit and dagger-like eyes, helps tie all the voices together with his firsthand accounts of working and fighting and making up with Kramer and Bangs. The three of them were like the core members of a really great and totally dysfunctional band.

That’s why even with the documentary’s deep dive into the personal lives of those who created the magazine, Crawford says he always made sure the film came back to what this collection of oddballs and outcasts created together: “It always had to come back to Creem.”

Creem: America’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll Magazine, which opened the 2019 Freep Film Festival,
returns to theaters in August before moving to streaming, on-demand, and DVD.